Among pundits and political reporters, a particular caveat has wormed its way into discussion of the public response to Donald Trump’s racist tweets about four Democratic congresswomen. Yes, a majority of Americans find his comments offensive, the thinking goes—but maybe that’s actually good for him, long-term, because it elevates the “identity” issues that fire up his electorally crucial Rust Belt fans over the tangible policy issues that Democrats would rather stick to. Here’s the New York Times:
Aides to Mr. Trump’s campaign conceded that the president’s tweets about the four women on Sunday were not helpful, were difficult to defend and caught them off guard.
They said that his instincts were what guided his campaign in 2016, when his attacks on immigrants resonated with alienated white voters in key states.
This is the Trump sources’ gloss, not the Times’, but the paper seems to accept it, later asserting a related claim as fact:
The Democrats who fared the best in the midterms were those who played down Mr. Trump while highlighting issues like protecting the health insurance of people with pre-existing conditions.
Meanwhile, here’s USA Today.
More than two-thirds of those aware of the controversy, 68%, call Trump’s tweets offensive. … Independents, by more than 2-1, say the comments are “un-American.”
Trump’s disparaging comments and the fierce responses from the four congresswomen and other Democrats overwhelmed attention to other pressing issues, including fundamental changes in asylum policy, the treatment of undocumented migrants at the border and a looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling and reach a budget deal. That could presage a 2020 presidential campaign that is ignited more by cultural conflicts than by economic concerns or foreign policy issues.
What these analyses imply is something that intellectuals such as myself call a dichotomy. On one side are Trump and/or his racism—matters of personality, identity, or culture. On the other, The Issues—matters of economics and foreign policy that realistic potential Democratic voters really care about.
This is a false dichotomy. To see why, let’s look specifically at the capital-I Issues raised in these passages, the ones that Democrats purportedly won’t be able to talk about if they’re talking about Trump and/or the “cultural and racial resentments” (the Times’ words) that he primes.
I will, judiciously, grant that the debt ceiling is not an issue strongly linked in voters’ minds to the president’s personality or racism. As for the rest: The Times cites health insurance guarantees for those with pre-existing medical conditions, while USA Today mentions asylum and the poor treatment of undocumented migrants in border facilities. But pre-existing condition protections became a salient issue in 2018 because Trump tried to eliminate them along with the rest of the Affordable Care Act, a move that was of a piece with his and his party’s general lack of concern for hardships faced by lower-income Americans, who tend to disproportionately be people of color. His border policies, meanwhile, are explicitly motivated by long-standing “cultural and racial” beliefs about immigrants from Mexico and Central America. (And as the Times piece even acknowledges, other aggressive border security initiatives don’t seem to have benefited Trump in the midterms. In fact, the reason the four freshman congresswomen Trump targeted—all of whom, of course, “fared” quite well in 2018—are in the news right now in the first place is because they tried to get the the Democratic Party to take a broadly popular position on border detention and executive branch oversight.)
[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]
It is true, as the Times says, that Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time defending inclusion and tolerance in 2016 and (sort of) lost an election to Trump. But Clinton was by necessity discussing Trump’s offensive beliefs in the abstract; now, those beliefs are the fuel in an engine that has churned out a series of tangible—and tangibly unpopular—changes or attempted changes to the way the country works. (To the above, you could add the efforts to build a border wall, the attempted cancellation of DACA, and the 2017 tax cut, which was intentionally designed to benefit people who are already wealthy, a point of Republican doctrine that has its own racist-y overtones.) Some of those things very obviously involve race, while others involve structural inequalities that are race-related. But none of them doesn’t have a connection to race or to racial resentment—this is America we’re talking about—and Trump has failed to gain majority support for his position on any of them, which is not the kind of thing you’d usually think of as a problem for the party that’s running against him.
Democrats could, in theory, ignore the connections between Trump’s racism and so-called kitchen table issues and instead respond to Trump’s inflammatory statements by getting into personal feuds, referendums on whether he is a good human being, and abstract conversations about, I don’t know, whether the Oscars do enough to promote diversity. But, for starters, that’s not even what the four congresswomen whom he insulted have done: At a Monday press conference, Ilhan Omar turned his comments about her toward an attack on his broader immigration policy “agenda” of white nationalism, while Ayanna Pressley pivoted to discussing what she sees as her voter-bestowed mandate to “advocate for and to represent those ignored, left out, and left behind.” The Democrats’ 2020 candidates also tend to discuss race in terms of addressing its big-picture impacts, not as a matter of personal attitudes—even the top-tier candidate who’s currently least popular with voters of color, Pete Buttigieg, has released a “racial and economic justice” policy plan named after Frederick Douglass. Furthermore, polling suggests Trump’s rhetoric has pushed rank-and-file Democratic voters (including white ones) toward supporting more overt governmental, structural efforts to reduce discrimination, which is to say that they see a connection between his crude words and the potential larger benefits of voting Democrats into office.
Whether this kind of pivot will be convincing to the electorate as a whole in 2020 remains to be seen. But to suggest that discussing racism and xenophobia is mutually exclusive with telling voters what can be done to improve their lives, and to improve the country as a whole, is bad punditry that borders on its own kind of racial myopia.